The Classic Typewriter Page


The Gardner represents one attempt to minimize the number of keys in a keyboard. Which typewriter design, you might wonder, involves the most keys?

For the answer, we have to go back to the infancy of typewriters, and an American patent taken out in 1850 by J.B. Fairbank. The patent is described and illustrated in Michael Adler's excellent The Writing Machine. Fairbank's typewriter was never built. This piano-sized device used 48 separate keyboards (two are shown in the illustration above). Each keyboard used a special phonetic alphabet, and the illustrations suggest that this alphabet included as many as 35 characters -- thus bringing the total number of keys to a staggering 1,680! At least the printing mechanism was straightforward: it is a plunger design in which the key is at the top end of a shaft, and the type is at the bottom end. The diagram to the left shows a group of shafts stretching from the keys, through a guide, down towards the platen. This same concept was used in 1870 in the first typewriter to be mass-produced with any success, the Hansen Writing Ball. Inking on Fairbank's machine was either by an ink roller or by carbon paper.

But why 48 keyboards? The answer is simple. Fairbank provided a mechanism for advancing the paper to the next line of text, but he did not address the rather simple problem of horizontal movement within a single line of text. Neither the platen nor the type is capable of moving from side to side. Since the Fairbank machine types a 48-character line, the only solution is to have a separate keyboard for each position in the line. A writer would have to type the first character from the first keyboard, then type the next character from the second keyboard, and so on. Fairbank's design does avoid the need to have a space key: if you want to leave a space in your document, simply skip a keyboard!

A complete and working Fairbank typewriter perhaps never could have been built, but a partial model was constructed, including one phonetic keyboard. It's illustrated in the Collector's Guide to Antique Typewriters, originally published 1923, reprinted by Dan Post in 1981. The model belongs to the Smithsonian (or at least it did in 1923). Here it is, in all its goofy glory.

His surreal invention will never earn J.B. Fairbank a place next to Edison, but it certainly has the power to delight the connoisseur of writing instruments.

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